Some call it nature therapy; others prefer eco-therapy. But the Japanese, who came up with the idea, use the most elegant and ethereal name of all – forest bathing.
Forest bathing. It is a beautiful term, perhaps even charming. The two words seem to link perfectly. Even saying it out loud seems soothing and refreshing. But what, exactly, is it? Well, it is a trend that sprang up in Japan back in the early 1980s as an exercise in wellness that combines aspects of both physical fitness and exercise for the soul.
But this is not just some kooky, new age fad. It has tangible health benefits that can help you live longer and better.
During the past decade, forest bathing has taken off around the world. You can find guided forest bathing tours in Iceland, Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii, Kenya, Finland, and dozens more countries around the world.
Forest bathing is based on the Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku and it is about taking time – slowly and mindfully – to appreciate our extraordinary natural environment.
But here is the thing, there is no bar of soap or a pail of water in sight. And that is because it the inner you that is immersed in the natural surrounds of the forest, cleansing your mind and soul of anxiety, stress, and the concerns of modern life.
And, let’s face it, since the coronavirus launched itself on our unsuspecting world, we have all had more than our fair share of stress and anxiety.
Well, taking a quiet stroll through your closest nature reserve might just be the best-ever antidote to all that pent-up inner turmoil.
But forest bathing does far more than de-stress you, as good as that might be. Several studies have shown that it also lowers blood sugar levels, boosts your immune system, and helps improve cardiovascular health as well as improving energy levels, reducing blood pressure, and dissipating depression. In short, it is good for you and your health.
Now, I am going to lay a little science and psychology science on you. The reason being in nature is good for you is this: it is called the biophilia hypothesis, sometimes known as BET.
This hypothesis contends that human beings are innately wired to seek connection to nature. It was first touted in the writings of American scientist, author, and naturalist Edward O Wilson. He defined biophilia as “the urge to affiliate with other forms of life” and “the connections that human beings subconsciously seek with the rest of life.”
Esoteric as that might sound, it is quite simple. Human beings evolved in nature. When our ancestors first climbed down from the trees, we were immersed all around in the natural world.
Our senses and evolutionary pathways all developed with stimulus from our natural surroundings, be they the flight or fight response that releases adrenaline to help us escape or overcome danger or sense of awe that most of us feel when we watch the sunrise. These are innate responses to naturally founded stimuli.
So, it is little wonder that if we re-immerse ourselves in nature’s beauty, then we might find that experience therapeutic in a myriad of ways.
Dr Qing Li is a Chinese-born physician who went to Japan to study forest bathing and is now the president of the Japanese Society of Forest Medicine, the vice-president of the International Society of Nature and Forest Medicine, and a director of the Japanese Forest Therapy Society.
He says forest bathing is “simply being in nature, connecting with it through our sense of sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch”.
If we spend our lives inside, we rarely use more than a couple of our senses such as sight and hearing. But, says Dr Qing, experiencing the world through just a few of our senses is like living a half-life.
He encourages people to use all their senses and to “smell the flowers, taste the fresh air, look at the changing colours of the trees, hear the birds singing and feel the breeze on our skin” while we are outside.
He says that by being in nature we connect ourselves to the harmony of our surroundings and allow ourselves to return to the rhythm of nature.
“Our nervous system can reset itself; our bodies and minds can go back to how they ought to be,” he says. “No longer out of kilter with nature but once again in tune with it, we are refreshed and restored.” Now, you must admit, that sounds inviting.
To get the most out of forest bathing you must use all five senses, Dr Qing says. You need to be lulled by the quiet surroundings, admire the beauty, smell the air and scents – the immersive effect of bathing yourself. However, it is the sense of smell that contributes most to feelings of peace and harmony, he says.
And here is the other thing about forest bathing – you can do it almost anywhere with a forest and it is free. He says: “If you want to be more active, more relax, happier, and healthier, you need to come close to nature.”
Forest bathing for novices
- Find a suitable place – somewhere easy and pleasant to walk is a good start. It should have places to sit and rest. Preferably, it should have access to natural waterways and views. It also helps if it is close to home so you can walk there and back.
- When you first arrive at your chosen spot take time to look around and absorb the atmosphere, notice the place you are in, notice your body, and tune in to your senses.
- Walk slowly with steady step-by-step pace, while silently noticing what is in motion in the forest. If you start to feel distracted or rushed, stop, and remain completely still for a few minutes before continuing.
- Make friends with the forest. Notice the trees, stones, plants, and flowers. Listen to the forest. Let the natural world make an impression on your mind.
- Sit down. Find a comfortable place to sit, staying still for up to 20 minutes, cultivating awareness.
- Give back. Quietly acknowledge everything the forest gives you.
Source: The Nature and Forest Therapy Association